May 22, 2014
The SOLI Chamber Ensemble capped its 20th anniversary season by providing a solid platform for five emerging composers of diverse stripes.
The concert, Tuesday in Ruth Taylor Recital Hall, culminated in the world premiere of Matthew Aucoin’s Celan Songs, settings of four poems in German by Paul Celan for mezzo-soprano with violin, clarinet, cello and piano.
Mr. Aucoin, born in 1990, is the youngest of the composers represented on the SOLI concert and also the youngest composer ever commissioned to write an opera for the Metropolitan Opera. He’s also working on operas for Lyric Opera of Chicago and the American Repertory Theater. He’s a 2012 graduate of Harvard College (summa cum laude, of course).
Paul Celan was born in Romania in 1920 to a German-speaking Jewish family. He went to Paris to study medicine in 1938 but returned home the following year, just before World War II began. He was interned at a forced-labor camp, from which he escaped. His parents were sent to a concentration camp, where they died. He eventually settled in Paris. He died by suicide in 1970. In his poetry, Celan compressed language until it exploded in a spray of shards. The instrumental component of Aucoin’s score follows suit with a spare, fragmentary landscape of free tonality gashed by silences — the idiom somewhat recalls Pierre Boulez. Curiously, most of the vocal line traces a continuous arc that recalls a rather different composer — Richard Wagner. Of the four poems, “Sprich auch du” (“Speak, you too”) has the strongest musical profile — ripples and waves floating in air, a lovely, near-tonal harmonic language. The singer is silent during three brief instrumental “fragments,” the last of which ends abruptly with a questioning inflection.
Much of the voice part sits high for a mezzo, but Tynan Davis essayed the songs with a gleaming, rich, accurate instrument. Her excellent partners were the SOLI regulars Ertan Torgul (violin), Stephanie Key (clarinet), David Mollenauer (cello) and Carolyn True (piano).
Ms. Davis also did a fine job with “Cantico delle creature” (2007) for soprano, violin, cello and piano by Caroline Shaw, the oldest of the composers on the concert. (She was born in 1982, and she won the Pulitzer Prize in music last year.) The text is a hymn of praise attributed to Francis of Assisi, and much of the vocal line recalls liturgical chant — extended passages ride on a single pitch. But there are surges of sensuality, as well. The instrumental backdrop is generally spare and pensive, though with strokes of drama. The piece as a whole is notable for its disciplined economy.
Nicco Athens, a native of San Antonio, was represented by his Piano Trio of 2011. This three-movement work is explicitly influenced by busy baroque counterpoint — there’s even a fugal passage in the fleet finale — and by J.S. Bach’s compositional virtuosity. The harmonic idiom is somewhat conservative, in the tonal Modern mainstream, but his melodic contours are remarkably enterprising.
Scott Ordway’s “Let there be not darkness, but light” (2012) for violin, clarinet, cello and piano is prickly, dissonant and harmonically restless, with a lyrical impulse. It covers a wide affective gamut — sometimes tender or mournful, sometimes violent, sometimes giddily propulsive.
Yvonne Freckmann’s “Switch” (2013) for clarinet and live electronics is something of a throwback to the 1970s and 1980s, when many composers were experimenting with the interplay between traditional instruments and their altered playback by means of tape loops or electronic signal processing. Indeed, the software Ms. Freckmann uses to control the electronic sounds in “Switch” originated in the 1980s at IRCAM, the Paris research institute for music and sound. That software, now called Max/MSP, has greatly evolved, allowing composers far more flexibility than was imaginable to an earlier generation. Weaving electronic sounds in a natural, not gimmicky, way around the acoustical clarinet, Ms. Freckmann exploits the new capabilities nicely.